“Blessed are the poor in spirit”—not those with spiritual bravado

“Blessed are the poor in spirit”—not those with spiritual bravado January 2, 2015

USA Superman postage stampI suppose it is easy for many people to feel a sense of superhuman capability when entering the New Year. After all, a new year of life brings confidence and hope and new beginnings. Couple this with the American “can do anything” attitude and one can feel like Superman or Superwoman. A sense of optimism and an unconquerable spirit certainly have their place and can be of great help when facing significant obstacles and overwhelming odds.

Against this backdrop, it might appear deeply counter-intuitive and confusing to hear Jesus’ opening words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3; ESV). The late John R. W. Stott explained that “poor in spirit” conveys the idea of “spiritual bankruptcy.”[1]  Those who are blessed before God are those who sense their spiritual bankruptcy; they are paupers in desperate need of God to bail them out. Jesus may have in mind Isaiah 61:1 (from which he quotes in Luke 4 in referring to God’s calling on his life) and Isaiah 66:2:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound (Isaiah 61:1; ESV).

All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word (Isaiah 66:2; ESV).

God delights in those who sense their desperate need for God and his word (See for example Psalm 51:16-17). One of the things that God despises most is spiritual pride, which involves a smug sense of having arrived. Such spiritual pride grieves and quenches God’s Spirit’s working powerfully in our midst; it is like spiritual Kryptonite in our lives. God’s Spirit acts on behalf of those who sense they have not arrived and await God’s merciful intervention. Matt Woodley puts it this way: God “will pour out his Spirit wherever he finds open, thirsty and desperate hearts. Our wealth, our education, our impressive programs and palatial buildings won’t help us because when God finds poor-in-spirit, hungry, merciful people, he will display his power among them (see Mt 5:3-10).”[2]

This beatitude in Matthew 5:3 launches Jesus’ state of the union address for his kingdom that has just dawned (See Matthew 4:17). I wonder how someone like Peter responded to these words; after all, he sometimes had a certain kind of spiritual bravado about him, which Jesus would later extinguish through his gracious and merciful challenge (See John 21:15-19). Jesus’ opening words here in the Sermon on the Mount are also grace-filled—“Jesus blesses the spiritually inadequate,” as Frederick Dale Bruner claims.[3] Do we sense our need for Jesus and his grace?

Jesus’ state of the union address raises probing questions for us concerning the state of our union with him as we embark upon every new year and each new day. If we are to participate in Jesus’ kingdom mission, it will begin and end with a radical sense of dependence on his gracious character and his every word, as expressed in Matthew 5:3. As Bruner argues, “The purpose of every Command in the Sermon on the Mount is to drive its hearers back to this First Beatitude.”[4]

The crowds were looking to Jesus. His disciples hoped in him and hung on his every word for life (Matthew 5:1-2; cf. John 6:66-68). What about us today?

This is the second post in a series on the Beatitudes of Matthew chapter 5.


[1]John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove: IVP, 1978), p. 39.

[2]Matt Woodley, The Gospel of Matthew: God With Us, Resonate Series (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011), p. 42.

[3]Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew:  The Christbook, Matthew 1-12, revised and expanded edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), p. 161.

[4]Bruner, Matthew, p. 161.

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